A recent post about a colleague's postdoc who is disrespectful (in more than a casual way) to female postdocs, but not to female professors or students, attracted many comments, including some from those who felt that the postdoc should be immediately fired.
I am curious about the demographics of those in the 'fire him immediately' camp vs. those in the 'give him a chance to change' camp.
My hypothesis, which we may or may not be able to test, is that the different responses relate more to academic position than to gender. That is, I think that those who have experience advising postdocs and graduate students might be the ones who are more interested in finding a way to change his behavior and attitude, while at the same time protecting his female peers.
In contrast, those with less advising experience might focus more on the fact that, in some fields, there is an oversupply of talented postdocs, so why waste time on one who has behaved reprehensibly? That is, if this postdoc cannot behave in a professional way towards all colleagues, he should be fired without being given a chance to change, and immediately replaced with someone without these problems.
This hypothesis may well be wrong, of course, but if amount of advising experience relates to the various responses to the 'peer sexism' anecdote, this is interesting because it conflicts with the view of many of my early-career readers who feel that professors aren't as humane as they could be in their dealings with postdocs and students. That is, professors should be more aware that graduate students and postdocs don't arrive fully trained and perfect, and should be less inclined to fire and fail those who don't meet our high standards (yet). We professors should work harder on the training and mentoring aspects of our jobs.
Holding that belief and the "fire him immediately" point of view requires making a distinction between the "how to do research" aspects of training and "how to get along with others" aspects. It requires being more patient with those who struggle with the first aspect, and less (or not at all) with the second. I see them both as elements of my job as an adviser, although I think many of us are very challenged by the second aspect of the advising job.
It is important to note that the specific case described in my earlier post does not involve violence, intimidation, physical contact, or any other serious situations in which immediate firing would obviously be well justified. The unprofessional behavior of this postdoc is unacceptable and should not continue, but, in my opinion, does not rise to the level of immediate firing without first giving the postdoc a change to change his behavior.
Although my influence on the employment status of a postdoc supervised by another professor at another university in another country on research in which I have no involvement is quite low, I have talked about the situation with the postdoc's supervisor, and know that he is taking it seriously. It would be unacceptable if no action were taken and if there were no negative consequences for the postdoc if he does not change. I do not believe that will be the case. The postdoc has recently been alerted to the fact that his behavior is unacceptable, not only to the female postdocs, but to his supervisor, and he has been given the opportunity to change; on what time scale and by what means of evaluation of progress, I do not know.
The question I asked earlier was whether readers believed the postdoc could change. Today the question is: Why do some people think the postdoc should be fired without any effort to find a way to change his attitude and behavior? If there is much evidence that this postdoc is a thoughtful, sincere, and nice person in other aspects of his professional life, why not try to build on that? Wouldn't we all benefit if this postdoc can change? Isn't it the responsibility of his supervisor to try to effect such a change? The supervisor is also responsible for some of the female postdocs involved in this situation, but if he believes he can protect them and mentor the problem postdoc, shouldn't he try?
Although I feel optimistic about this particular case, overall the situation is depressing. I am very weary of the apparently limitless supply of sexists of all ages, although I know from long experience advising that few of us are perfect in our interpersonal relations, and some people can change (for the better).
If, after efforts to fix the problem, this postdoc continued to show no signs of being able to work with female peers, his contract should be terminated, no matter how talented he is at research and no matter how respectful he is to women who are not his peers. Such termination is the right thing to do for many reasons, including the very practical reason that his inability to work with everyone on his research team (and creation of a hostile work environment for some) harms the research.
I hope it doesn't come to that, but the situation nevertheless make me wonder: Is a desire for the elimination of sexism (and similar problems) in academia incompatible with a wish to educate and reform the perpetrators? I don't think it is.
9 years ago